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Today’s “The Australian” has again delivered a major critique of Shorten and published an article by Cater which reinforces that and draws attention to Shorten’s failure until the very last minute to attend the welcome home in Darwin to the return of troops from Afghanistan (Abbott has made that a “national” day for next year). Cater reminds us of the history of opposition from the left to Australian participation in “foreign” wars. But while the criticism of Shorten for not-learning-the-lesson-from-Gillard/Rudd-policy-failures is well justified, it is difficult to think of alternatives.

Ferguson’s comments on the need for “early” labour market reform highlight the absence from Labor’s ranks of anyone similar to Keating. In an excellent article published as (of all things) a “Fairfax columnist”, Peter Reith draws attention to Ferguson’s suggestion that Abbott not stick religiously to his pre-election policy. Almost every day material about union behaviour appears that was not known before the election (the behaviour of former ALP President Williamson, now awaiting conviction, was known, but ...). The need for getting rid of penalty rates is a stand out and is subject to complaints almost every day. Abolition would obviously add to employment and, as such, would provide political justification.

Disappointing is the failure of The Australian to make any criticism of the climate report by the CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology. Statements such as “Australia is getting hotter and the window for bushfires is growing” should surely have been accompanied by an explanation of how that can be reconciled with the failure of temperatures to increase for 16 years. As presented in The Australian, the report would warrant an accompanying statement that the case for government action to reduce emissions should (at least) be reviewed.  



Under Bill Shorten Labor looks dazed and confused

Editorial published in The Australian, March 4, 2014

THERE are many reasons why at last year's federal election Labor recorded its lowest primary vote in more than 100 years.

Disunity, fiscal incompetence, weak leadership and poor processes loom large. With two-thirds of voters emphatically rejecting the ALP's style of governing over two terms, the message from the electorate should be obvious to the remnants of its Canberra delegation: don't make the policy mistakes of the Rudd-Gillard years. Yet six months after its heavy defeat, Labor is stuck in a dead zone, locked into failed positions and carrying the baggage of the lamentable Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard years. Rather than offering a path to recovery through conviction -- along the positive spectrum proposed by one-time leader Kim Beazley or even Australian Workers Union chief Paul Howes -- Bill Shorten is a cipher for failed ideas.

Labor responses to the high-profile intervention by Martin Ferguson, a former resources minister and ACTU president, illustrate the sharp divide between those who understand the way forward and those who are destined to flail around for solutions. Put simply, Mr Ferguson noted that complacency was at the heart of a retrograde political culture that viewed handouts as the answer to help ailing manufacturers. Instead, the elder from the ALP Left called for an approach reminiscent of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating: more open markets, less regulation and a reform agenda based on productivity. In truth, these are the ideals behind Labor's most successful period in office. This model was recognised, in spirit at least, by Mr Howes in his recent "grand compact" speech and by former minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who said on the ABC Insiders program that Mr Ferguson had correctly identified the nation's high-cost base in trade-exposed industries as a reform priority.

Still, some in the ALP obviously have trouble with basic economic literacy or letting go of their adoration for Ms Gillard's deeply flawed Fair Work Act, the Lotto-style payday that keeps on giving to struggling trade unions. Labor employment and workplace relations spokesman Brendan O'Connor will likely go to his grave a Gillard loyalist. On Sky News's Australian Agenda Mr O'Connor argued Mr Ferguson was now a mouthpiece for oil and gas interests and that his industrial relations analysis was wrong. Yet Mr O'Connor does not have the wit to recognise the deregulation of wage bargaining, which commenced under Mr Keating and continued under John Howard, has a direct link to better outcomes on employment and productivity. Or that the carbon tax exported local jobs.

Mr Shorten is oddly wedded to Ms Gillard's failed workplace legacy, even though he was instrumental in removing her from the leadership. The Opposition Leader has proven himself weak in not demanding an apology from Stephen Conroy after the latter accused Lieutenant General Angus Campbell of participating in a political cover-up via his military role in combating people-smuggling. Mr Shorten also displayed poor judgment over a weekend trip to honour troops in Darwin.

These missteps are avoidable for an able politician. But Mr Shorten is not looking anything like a modern Labor leader, one in touch with the concerns of voters or with the best reforming traditions of his proud party.

Tony Abbott should forge ahead with labour market reform

Article by Peter Reith published in The Sydney Morning Herald, March 4, 2014

That backbench MPs raised labour market policy in the Coalition party room last week was remarkable in that it did not leak. But it did symbolise growing concern the government is not doing enough to tackle unemployment.

It was not the usual rebellion in which a backbencher just lobs a hand grenade, sends off an SMS with comments to a favoured journo and leaves it at that.

There might be a shift in sentiment about Prime Minister Tony Abbott within the ranks of his backbench. It should encourage Abbott to disabuse Martin Ferguson, who said Abbott's labour reforms were modest and timid.

The position taken by Abbott to reject corporate welfare has sent a strong, positive message to the backbench reformers. It seems Abbott can be drier than they thought. The result of his holding his nerve and not agreeing to send good money after bad is some of his less enthusiastic supporters are wondering if he might actually turn out to be a better leader as PM than he was an opposition leader.

One minister who has good instincts on economic management was heard to say that Abbott seems to be taking a special Thatcherite ''dry pill''. This is an unusual compliment for Abbott, who once took a bucket from Peter Costello for being too influenced by the Democratic Labour Party's collectivist and protectionist economic policy.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and Abbott have combined well on business welfare and produced a narrative the public understands. Although Abbott was not the reason for the car industry deciding to close down, it happened on Abbott's watch and he could have tried to save it despite the futility of continuing subsidies. In time, he will be entitled to be credited with taking the right approach.

Having publicly fought for zero tariffs in 1993 and having to endure the frustration of the cabinet negotiating more subsidies in 1996, I cannot help but note that the last bastion of protectionism has finally been breached and a burden on the economy will soon be lifted.

The Qantas decision is also important. Apart from the sensible argument that the Qantas Sale Act needs repealing, the other possible conditions for government support were never convincing. Hockey's fourth condition required Qantas to do the ''heavy lifting on its own reform'', but that is Qantas's job anyway. Labor's Fair Work legislation makes it difficult for any business to lift its game and hence that is an issue for government.

The labour market reforms that are needed are obvious. Reform is all about politics, especially Labor's domination by the unions.

The latest polling shows Labor ahead but, for now, that is irrelevant. The government's future will be judged at the next election on economic issues such as rising unemployment. Job losses at Toyota, Alcoa and others will ensure this issue will be paramount at the next election. And if the unemployment rate goes above Labor's predicted 6.25 per cent the public will not care who caused it, they will judge the parties by who is going to fix it.

Abbott needs workplace relations reform as soon as possible but has promised no big reforms until after the next election. He will keep his promise. But he could bring forward his process for labour market reform and keep his promise.

First, it is vital he appoint the right people to his Productivity Commission panel. There are few people with labour market policy experience and the necessary commitment to reform. The government should be talking to Judith Sloan, Peter Anderson, one or two lawyers from the bar, Herbert Smith Freehills or Ashurst lawyers or Professor Mark Wooden.

Second, the government should also be thinking about receiving the PC report well before the election and introducing the legislation before it. Priority must be given to this reform, so why not let the Senate have its committee hearings before the election? If the legislation is out before the election then the government's mandate is much stronger.

As opposition leader Abbott was disciplined and more than a match for his hapless opponents. But he also made some bad decisions in the cause of defeating Labor. He is saddled with his paid parental leave scheme, and various spending promises that Australia cannot afford. But I understand why he wants to keep his promises.

Abbott's rejection of business welfare has been good but regardless of how well you do one week, it is the next week that can bring you down. His approach on economic policy since Christmas has given his reformist supporters reason to think he can do better than some expected on economic policy, but he needs to push his reformist approach harder in the months ahead.

Peter Reith is a former Howard government minister and a Fairfax columnist.

The anti-military bohemian collective

Article by Nick Cater published in The Australian, March 4, 2014

PETER Coleman once wrote about bohemians who met at Sherry’s coffee shop in wartime Sydney to consider “more important things” than the war.

Nowadays the bohemians are organising the Opposition Leader’s diary and have decided that there were more pressing matters to attend to than welcoming home our troops in Darwin after their longest ever war.

Fortunately Seven Network’s Mark Riley persuaded Bill Shorten to change his mind. Riley’s no-show Bill story aired on Friday’s 6pm news. By 6.30pm the bohemians had managed to find a flight. Three hours later Shorten was wedged in an economy seat adopting the conventional Jetstar position; his knees pushed firmly against his chin.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Stephen Conroy’s attack on the integrity of a three-star general and Shorten’s diary omission have taken Labor into dangerous territory. The party may be falling out of step, not just with the military, but popular sentiment.

When Labor split over conscription during World War I, prime minister Billy Hughes knew better than to succumb to the “Wobblies”, the Left-wing radicals inspired by the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World.

The Wobblies preferred the “whiff of anarchist bomb plots and folksy songs” to “winning votes and civilising capitalism”, writes Tony Moore in Dancing With Empty Pockets. Hughes took the decisive step of declaring the Wobblies illegal.

In 1966 during the Vietnam War, Arthur Calwell led Labor to its heaviest defeat in history on a platform of anti-conscription that some voters saw as undermining our troops.

When Gough Whitlam succeeded him as opposition leader in February 1967, he was decidedly cautious about being associated with the anti-war movement, understanding that causes that stouten hearts on university campuses sit awkwardly with the broader population.

Since the 1960s, the ABC has proved to be a treacherous guide to public sentiment on defence matters.

Among the ABC’s earliest controversies was a Four Corners demolition job on the RSL produced and presented by Allan Ashbolt, the father of activist public broadcasting.

Ashbolt marched alongside Jim Cairns on moratorium marches and famously wrestled a pro-war protester to the ground at a public meeting. In November 1971, This Day Tonight interviewed a draft resister live in the ABC’s Gore Hill studio and then allowed him to escape through a back door to evade waiting police.

On the eve of the first Gulf War in December 1990, the ABC’s international service, Radio Australia, stopped its two-hour daily service of messages to Australian sailors in the Gulf. Radio Australia’s acting general manager, Geoff Heriot, said to do so would be tantamount to offering “overt support for a government military/political endeavour”.

When military action began a month later, The 7.30 Report chose as its regular expert commentator Macquarie University’s Robert Springborg, who was an outspoken opponent of military action. Prime minister Bob Hawke attacked the corporation as “loaded, biased and disgraceful”.

Throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, it became clear that the ABC could not be trusted to provide a balanced picture of a modern military campaign. Setbacks and suffering were played up; successes were played down. When the murderous Saddam Hussein was captured and later sentenced to death, the ABC’s presenters and reporters agonised about the lack of judicial process.

The extra-judicial killing of Osama bin Laden was greeted with hand-wringing about the denial of civil rights. David Hicks was a hero; George W. Bush a dangerous fool. The illegitimacy of the wars was assumed from the start and the script was utterly predictable.

Many at the ABC see nothing wrong in reporting unfounded allegations of brutality by naval personnel towards asylum-seekers. If it wasn’t true, it is the kind of thing that ought to be true.

Is it reasonably likely that trained military personnel would act in such a brutal fashion? In the mindset of the anti-military camp at the ABC, the answer is plainly yes. Naturally there is no such thing as “groupthink” at the ABC - heavens no! - but the military must change its ways to deal with its “institutional culture”.

The obsession with what is wrong with the forces and the reluctance to recognise the stirling qualities of discipline, self-sacrifice and professionalism grate with the broader population.

This exchange from 2011 between ABC 774 Melbourne’s Jon Faine and his listeners over gender balance serves to illustrate two irreconcilable world views.

Faine: “It is suddenly all heat on the generals over discrimination where there is unbelievable ineptitude at every level of their job. How do you engineer change?

Organisationally it seems like it’s a mess. And at the moment some of the top brass are being portrayed as dinosaurs.”

Michael in Keilor East: “I’ll take a different stance on this. They’re not trying to keep them out of the defence force at all, it is a protective thing. I would never want to see my wife go overseas to fight.”

Faine: “Michael I’m sure that you are aware that there are now going to be howls of outrage from people saying you’re joking!”

Moira from Tasmania: “I was appalled by what you said Jon. We’ve got our soldiers overseas, their lives are on the line, and all these negative things are being said about our military. We’ve had a wonderful military.”

For politicians, this is the most treacherous category of cultural debate, one that pits the Wobblies and bohemians against Australians like Michael and Moira.

Clearly there are some Australians, Conroy among them, who think it is entirely possible that the Australian military would stoop to follow the base political objectives of the government of the day and that Operation Sovereign Borders is not an exercise in defending the nation but an elaborate political stunt.

Many more Australians, however, find these ideas preposterous. They are embarrassed the opposition defence spokesman would have made the allegation under the cloak of legal privilege attached to the proceedings a federal parliamentary committee.

There is no room for indifference. You either enlist or you do not. Either Conroy is on to something or he is completely barking mad.

Tony Abbott to tread softly over China, Japan tensions on Asian trip

Article by Mark Kenny, Chief Political Correspondent published in The Sydney Morning Herald, March 4, 2014

"I met with the Chinese ambassador a week or so back and he assured me that the Chinese government...was looking forward to my trip": Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is planning to tread a fine diplomatic line between the increasingly complicated strategic interests of China and Japan and the trade possibilities for Australia when he embarks on his first foray into north Asia next month.

He said Australia had maintained a neutral position regarding disputed islands.

The trip, which will take in the South Korean capital, Seoul, will be Mr Abbott's first major foreign policy venture not associated with an international conference.

The Prime Minister announced he would lead a top-level business and political delegation on the week-long visit and, while the focus is primarily economic, it was possible that any subject could come up - from human rights to defence and security issues associated with escalating tensions in the South and East China seas.

Speaking exclusively to Fairfax Media, Mr Abbott said he wanted to push the message that Australia was under new management and open for business. He said the issues of economic improvement and the maintenance of peace were inextricably linked.

''The region's remarkable economic development owes much to the strategic stability of recent decades,'' he said. ''Australia will work with all our partners to ensure that this continues and that nothing jeopardises the region's future peace and prosperity.

''While there may be current tensions between two of our most important export markets and regional partners, we do not take a position on their dispute but look to them to resolve their differences peacefully and in accordance with international law.''

Mr Abbott's approach differed in tone from the more strident comments of Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who, several months ago, put noses out of joint by criticising the legal basis of Beijing's declaration of a so-called ''air defence zone'' over islands also being claimed by Japan.

''Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea,'' Ms Bishop said in November.

Relations with China have cooled since the change of government after former prime minister Julia Gillard signed a ''strategic partnership'' with the nation. It ensured regular leadership dialogues and increased defence co-operation. However, Mr Abbott slowed that process by declaring Japan to be Australia's best friend in Asia.

The opposition has been critical of the change in emphasis. Some foreign policy experts caution that picking sides might be foolhardy because conflict between China and Japan cannot be ruled out.

Mr Abbott said he was confident that a snub of Ms Bishop by Chinese officials last year, which raised eyebrows in the diplomatic community, was not representative of the broader relationship.

''I met with the Chinese ambassador a week or so back and he assured me that the Chinese government, at the very highest of levels, was looking forward to my trip,'' Mr Abbott said.

''From time to time, there are always going to be issues but there is a fundamental strength in this relationship and I want to build on those strengths.''

Michael Williamson planned to kill himself after wrongdoing was exposed, court hears

Editorial published in The Sydney Morning Herald, March 4, 2014

Bail revoked for former HSU boss

Michael Williamson, the former union boss who was taken into custody on Monday, told a psychiatrist that he ''has an anxiety about incarceration''.

Williamson, the former president of the ALP and long-time boss of the Health Services Union, pleaded guilty to four charges, including two counts of cheating and defrauding the union, recruiting other people, including his son Chris, to hinder the police investigation and creating fraudulent documents to try to mislead an inquiry into the union.

At his sentencing hearing in Sydney's District Court, forensic psychiatrist Bruce Westmore said Williamson grew up in such poverty that he was determined his own five children would never suffer financial hardship.

In his psychiatric report, tendered to court, Dr Westmore also said Williamson had been sexually abused as a teenager by a Catholic priest and that he intended taking his complaint further.

In September, 2011, a fortnight after Fairfax Media revealed Williamson and his former colleague Craig Thomson were receiving secret commissions from a supplier to the union, Williamson decided to kill himself.

It was the day after the union announced it was holding an inquiry into allegations raised by Fairfax, and Williamson left his Maroubra home about 2am and drove to the Central Coast, where he has a holiday house.

He told Dr Westmore that he ''planned to take his small boat into the lake and tie the anchor around his neck''. However, when he arrived at the beach house, ''he saw a photo of his wife and children and he started crying'', the psychiatrist said in his report.

Emily Winborne, from the Director of Public Prosecutions, said Williamson's only motive was greed and that his criminality had left the union $5 million worse off. She rejected his claim he wished to protect his children from financial hardship by pointing out that Williamson's salary ranged from $290,000 to $500,000 at the time of the offences and that three of his five children were adults at the time. Much of the money was spent on maintaining a lavish lifestyle.

Ms Winborne also said Williamson's ''systematic and sustained'' attempts to hide his criminality were aggravating factors.

Listening devices recorded Williamson's attempts to have American Express records destroyed and the records of a computer wiped. He also forged invoices in an attempt to cover his tracks.

His barrister, Tim Game, SC, did not argue that his client should not receive a prison term. However, Mr Game said Williamson's ''downfall has been complete'' and that he had lost his reputation, his future and financial security.

Mr Williamson's daughter Alexandra, a former staffer to Julia Gillard, wiped tears from her father's eyes as they hugged outside the court. Ms Williamson handed her father an overnight bag as court officers took him into custody.

Another daughter, Elizabeth Delohery, wrote in a submission to the court: ''I know that my father's conduct was reckless, cowardly, arrogant and irresponsible … Despite this I am proud, and always will be proud to stand up and say that Michael Williamson is my father.''

Judge David Frearson will sentence Williamson on March 28.

The heat is on, but rain's still a mystery

Article by Graham Lloyd published in The Australian, March 4, 2014

AUSTRALIA is getting hotter and the window for bushfires is growing but there is no clear trend in heavy rainfall or cyclones, according to the biannual climate report released today by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

The State of the Climate report said the nation's average temperatures had increased by almost 1C during the past century, with seven of the 10 hottest years occurring since 1998. This compares with average surface temperatures on a global scale, where nine of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2002.

Bureau of Meteorology spokesman Karl Braganza said it was not possible to compare continental and global surface temperatures because of the influence of oceans at the global scale.

According to the report, rising average temperatures were occurring against the background of high climate variability, "but the signal is clear".

"Warming has seen Australia experiencing more warm weather and extreme heat, and fewer cool extremes," the report said. "There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia."

Dr Braganza said it was only possible to measure an increase in "fire weather" because actual fires depended on several factors including fuel loads and ignition.

He said a lot of recent work had looked at the role of climate change as opposed to natural variation in weather extremes. But he said "event attribution is still in its early days". This was particularly true for heavy rainfall events, where natural variation was still considered to be playing the "dominant role".

"Recent studies examining heavy monthly to seasonal rainfall events that occurred in eastern Australia between 2010 and 2012 have shown that the magnitude of extreme rainfall is mostly explained by natural variability, with potentially a small additional contribution from global warming," the report said.

"Understanding changes to Australian rainfall intensity is an area of ongoing research."

Rainfall averaged across Australia had slightly increased since 1900 with large increases in the northwest and reductions in the southwest since 1970.

Autumn and early winter rainfall had mostly been below average in the southeast since 1990.

The report said it was difficult to draw conclusions regarding changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones.

“The research on cyclone frequency in the Australian region is equivocal, with some studies suggesting no change and othes a decrease in numbers since the 1970s”, the report said.

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